Actors who radically change their bodies for a role


You’ve probably heard of The Whale, the film that won two awards at this year's Oscars. It stars Brendan Fraser, who plays a morbidly obese man trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter. But you’d be forgiven for not recognising the actor, famous for his athletic physique in the 1997 film George of the Jungle. He is almost unrecognisable in the film: his character weighs around 270kg. The look was created with a mix of prosthetics, makeup and CGI. So seamless is the transformation that the team responsible won an Academy Award for their work. 

Brendan isn’t the first star to completely transform their look for a role. And others have chosen what is arguably an even more challenging route, gaining or losing large amounts of weight in order to embody their character. 

Christian Bale, for instance, lost 30kg in preparation for his role in The Machinist in the early 2000s. He followed a dangerously strict diet for four months, reportedly limiting himself to one can of tuna and a single apple a day. Why would an actor do this? According to some, it isn't just about looking right, it's about getting into character. 

For example, Natalie Portman found out first hand about the physical toughness of ballerinas when she made the sinister film Black Swan. Her diet revolved around carrots and almonds, even while she was enduring gruelling eight-hour training sessions daily. It all took a serious toll on the star, who dislocated a rib during rehearsals. She told Entertainment Weekly at the time: “There were some nights that I thought I literally was going to die. It was the first time I understood how you could get so wrapped up in a role that it could sort of take you down.” Yet her struggles helped her understand how a prima ballerina feels, and what lies behind their art. She explained: “Dancers are always dancing with an extreme injury. Not just a sore muscle, they’re dancing on a sprained ankle or with a twisted neck or something. You’ll see them do incredible stuff and then limp off stage, straight to a bucket of ice. Part of the art is hiding all the pain.” 

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Jake Gyllenhaal is an old-timer when it comes to taking on roles that require a challenging physical transformation. He lost over 11kg for his role in the film Nightcrawler in 2014, before gaining 13kg of muscle for the film Southpaw, released the following year. He sees these challenges as experiments. He told The Guardian in 2015: “I’ve realised I’m fascinated with what it is to be a man. And as a man, physicality is important... With Nightcrawler, I was searching for a physical, chemical state that would come from depriving myself. I was interested in what that would bring out. It wasn’t about losing weight. It was about what happens with a certain kind of deprivation.” 

Although these body transformations are highly impressive, losing or gaining so much weight in such a short amount of time is very definitely not recommended. Renée Zellweger put on 30lbs for the 2001 British classic Bridget Jones’s Diary, eating upwards of 4,000 calories a day, and put herself through a similar process to play Bridget again in 2004's The Edge of Reason.  But, having been warned by medical professionals that her wildly fluctuating weight could cause serious health issues, more recently she has chosen to use prosthetics where needed.

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